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Nigel de Jong could fix the LA Galaxy

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Witters Sport-USA TODAY Sports

In recent days, reports have surfaced that the LA Galaxy are in hot pursuit of Dutch defensive midfielder, Nigel de Jong. As many will note, I have been incredibly critical of the LA Galaxy this off-season for their pursuit of ageing European stars. Pair this with my recent critique of the possibility of pairing Steven Gerrard with another aging defensive midfielder in his thirties, Jeff Larentowicz, and you're probably expecting me to put the team on full blast.

Sorry to disappoint, but I'm actually downright giddy about this potential signing. I can, however, offer some consolation by stating that the vast majority of people who think Nigel de Jong would be a good signing, are completely wrong in their reasoning as to why this team needs him.

Conventional wisdom suggests that Steven Gerrard needs a defensive anchor to be effective going forward, and, considering the Jeff Larentowicz signing, it wouldn't at all surprise me to think that Bruce Arena buys into such a notion, which would also explain the pursuit of Nigel de Jong.

When you look at Steven Gerrard's club record, there is certainly some level of truth to this thinking, as arguably his best years came when backstopped by Xabi Alonso. But there is also a dangerous level of over simplification at play here.

Soccer is complicated. At its most basic level, soccer is a sport where 10 field players exist in a state of constant conflict between offensive and defensive duties relative to the ball. Should a player move forward to support an attack or hang back and cover the space behind? The answer is rarely a clear one and is almost always completely dependent on the actions of others.

In essence, formations are necessary to facilitate some form of logical order to the decision making process of players by creating positions to which general roles can be assigned. A center back will, more often than not, choose to sit back rather than making an attacking run into the box, and his decision to do so will be guided almost entirely by his understanding of the role of his position within the team's system.

While the utility of such concepts is obvious, so too is their danger to hinder our understanding of the game when applied in an overly dogmatic fashion, as was famously the case in 1954 when Hungary humbled England with a 6-3 defeat at Wembley.

A full tactical breakdown can be read here, while the match itself can be watched in its entirety, but the short of it is rather simple. England played with 3 backs, as was traditional at the time since most teams played with 3 forwards. In England, center forwards were basically all Alan Gordons-- big, burly, and stayed planted firmly in the box. As such, it was the job of the center half-back  (what we now call a center back) to sit on this player in the box. On the day, it was a guy by the name of Harry Johnston.

Hungary, on the other hand, played with 2 outside forwards, and an inside player named Nándor Hidegkuti, who, in modern parlance, would be known as a false 9. Instead of planting himself in the box like an Alan Gordon, Hidegkuti constantly drifted back into midfield or swung out wide, and, Johnston, given his dogmatic understanding of what center-halves do, simply could not adjust. He let Hidegkuti roam around freely, opening all sorts of seams for attacks.

And this brings us back to the concept of defensive midfielders. While soccer has advanced a great deal since 1954, the simplistic way in which we view certain positions is still very much alive and well, as is the potential folly in doing so.

Defensive midfielders are way more than ball winners. In fact, the majority of the touches any defensive midfielder receives are non defensive in nature. When you look at the broader tactics of those Liverpool teams featuring Gerrard and Alonso, we can't be overly simplistic in our analysis. Not just any defensive midfielder would work in that partnership in Liverpool. Both players had to fit the system in ways far more complex than one player winning balls for another, although that was certainly an element. In this same way, thinking LA needs a ball winner to plant behind Gerrard is an overly simplistic statement because the Galaxy midfield, in actuality, is in need of a lot of things at once.

Nigel de Jong may have a reputation as a bruiser, as warranted by his karate kicking of Xabi Alonso in the World Cup, the nasty tackle which opened up Stuart Holden's knee, and the Ossie Alonso-esque defensive action numbers he puts up in Italy, but there is a great deal more to his game to consider.

In 2013, Nigel de Jong averaged 60.1 passes per 90 and followed it up the next year with an average of 59.5. That puts him in line with Marcelo Sarvas in 2014. Of course, passes per 90 rates cannot be adequately compared between players on different teams since some teams pass the ball more than others. A better way to look at it is to look at the percentage of a team's total passes that a player is responsible for. This is known as pass usage. Below are the relevant pass usage numbers for comparison.


Pass usage

Juninho 14

14.8%

De Jong 14/15

13.2%

Sarvas 14

12.6%

De Jong 13/14

12.4%

Larentowicz 13

11.6%

For those curious, Jeff Larentowicz's 2013 numbers are used because it is the last year he played primarily as a CDM before switching over to part timing as a CB. While he does have 90 minutes at CB in 2013, it is not enough minutes to skew his usage data enough to matter on the above chart.

Nigel de Jong differs from Jeff Larentowicz, not just in skill, but in the style of CDM he is. Larentowicz is not a guy you can depend on for circulation. He may be tidy in his passing, but he simply doesn't get on the ball enough. De Jong, on the other hand, is far more adept as a circulator of the ball.  For an MLS analog, think of Kyle Beckerman. In an offense that ran on working possession to open up space, Beckerman's value to those formidable RSL attacks was felt equally in his ball winning to allow Morales to play in an advanced role, and his ability to work his way into positions to receive passes and know exactly where to play them. Beckerman kept the ball moving. So does de Jong. Why does this matter?

In 2014, Marcelo Sarvas and Juninho accounted for 27% of the Galaxy's total passes, with Junihno reaching an average of 70.7 passes per 90, and Marcelo Sarvas an average of 60. As I noted in the Larentowicz article, there are a number of factors that will likely contribute to Steven Gerrard seeing more passes per 90 next year, however, even if Gerrard raises his passing total by 24% which would put him on par with Marcelo Sarvas in 2014, the Galaxy midfield would still be down the 70.7 passes per 90 that Juninho provided. Obviously the Galaxy don't need to make these numbers up exactly, but if they don't put a sizable dent in the deficit, it's hard to imagine the Galaxy being able to maintain the mechanics of their current possession based attack which they've developed in the post Beckham years.

All indications are that Nigel de Jong would not only provide that essential ball winning element to shield the backline, but also help maintain something close to the level of passing that existed in 2014 which allowed the Galaxy attack to work the ball in such a way to create seams for their attackers. And with Giovani dos Santos likely moving back into the midfield and Gyasi Zardes back to forward, the Galaxy have tools in place to exploit these seams in the same way they did so consistently in 2014. As long as Steven Gerrard doesn't continue to bomb in his touch numbers, the prospects of a Gerrard/De Jong tandem flanked by Giovani dos Santos, are actually quite bright.

From an analytics standpoint, no LA Galaxy signing since I've started seriously statistically studying this team back 2013, will have made as much sense as this Nigel de Jong signing, if the LA Galaxy are able to pull this off. Of course, I have no idea whether the above passing considerations are being taken into account in their scouting or if they're simply going into this looking for an established European name at the position (or if the reports are even true that we're in pursuit). Then again, at this point, I don't really care how we get there. I just want to get there. I want a signing that makes sense.

I want to believe.